Exhausted, frustrated, confused: study says teachers taxed by pandemic

Two images side by side: Wendy Rowe in outside with the water behind her and Jennifer Walinga in a classroom.

The pandemic has contributed serious stress and disruption to BC’s educational system yet teachers soldier on, demonstrating resilience despite their exhaustion and confusion.

These are initial observations in a study conducted by Royal Roads professors Wendy Rowe and Jennifer Walinga — a study that should have generated hundreds of completed surveys and dozens of interviews for an in-depth examination on stress adaptation of K-to-12 teachers during the pandemic.

But teachers' voices were diminished in this study, reinforcing two critical situations affecting their wellbeing:

  • a cumbersome bureaucracy that resulted in a lack of communication, coordination and support for teacher wellbeing from the top of BC’s public education system down as educators and administrators scrambled to react to the risk of widespread COVID-19 infections
  • a lack of trust as well as competing agendas between school districts and teachers’ union officials that prevented either body from properly recognizing and safeguarding the mental health of teachers

Rowe (School of Leadership Studies) and Walinga (School of Communication and Culture) received a Partnership Engage grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a Canadian federal research-funding agency, to conduct their study, which focused on Sooke School District on Vancouver Island. Going into the study, they had the support of School District 62 administration and intended to survey teachers in all 26 schools to learn what teachers were doing to cope with the impact of the pandemic, what was proving most challenging or even intractable, what was helping, and what was missing that could help them address the effects of the pandemic more sustainably.

But Rowe says the Sooke Teachers’ Association declined to participate and sent a directive to its members asking them not to. (Still, about 65 educators took part, including some who’d returned their surveys before the directive was issued; some who hadn’t received the directive and some who ignored it. Rowe says researchers conducted follow-up interviews with a handful of them along with some administrators.)

Walinga says the union expressed legitimate and understandable concerns that teachers would be blamed for not coping with the extraordinary demands of a rapidly changing work environment, and that the study would identify and celebrate those teachers who managed to thrive during the pandemic while classifying all others as somehow failing.

Rather than being frustrated with the union’s expressed misgivings, however, she says: “I think that the response of the union was actually good data because it illustrated one of the main issues.”

An additional fear was that teachers were too exhausted to respond to an inquiry into potential strategies for stress adaptation even though the study was expressly looking at how the institutional bodies could better support educators to navigate the stressors of a pandemic.

Rowe and Walinga say they found that school administrators were highly appreciative of their teachers and recognized the stress they were experiencing, and that they expressed high levels of caring and compassion.

At the same time, however, the professors say school administrators told them they thought teachers were amazingly resilient and capable of adapting to the circumstances they were experiencing, although Rowe says this perspective could be questioned as teachers begin the second year of teaching in classrooms under continued high risk of infection.

In addition, she says, findings from the small sample of 65 classroom teachers suggest otherwise; that approximately a third of respondents reported they were not doing well while the remaining were coping with varying degrees of success.

A critical issue regarding teachers’ ability to cope during the pandemic was the quality of communication through the strata of education bureaucracy.

“These respondents were saying [that] there wasn’t a lot of direct communication with teachers,” Rowe says. “That communication was very much through the system, from the Ministry of Education to school boards, from school boards to principals, and then it was left up to teachers to find their own way.”

The researchers also examined policy statements on government websites and noted that the initial focus was on keeping schools operating, with later statements covering prevention of the spread of COVID. Very few, however, addressed teacher stress, mental health and overall wellness.

“It’s almost like these organizations, the actual institutional layers of these sectors, are in denial,” Walinga says. “They’re so afraid of being sued or taken advantage that they just won’t commit any language to any of these realities, because then they acknowledge the reality.

“It’s all about blame,” she says. “They’re trying to defend themselves from any kind of blame. If we acknowledge the reality of COVID, then we’re somehow going to have to take responsibility for it.”

Instead, teachers took on more responsibility, supporting one another professionally and emotionally, and sharing resources, such as video lessons and adapted curricula, without adequate direction from above.

In line with effective crisis communication principles, recommendations from the study ask ministry leaders to take greater responsibility for the health of their staff and students. In so doing, Walinga says, they will not only better equip their staff with supports, tools, strategies and space to problem solve, but they will regain trust, ultimately enhancing their credibility and impact in the face of a challenging crisis. And she notes that listening to all voices will be crucial to building unity across the system.

Rowe and Walinga are putting the finishing touches on their draft study report and will be presenting the final document to Sooke School District this month, with excerpts possibly released to the public this fall.